Happy Birthday, America! (And How Japser Johns Built an Outstanding Career by Painting Flags)


Flag on Orange, Jasper Johns, 1998

This is a special day in America, and as I was looking for an appropriate image for the occasion, MOMA posted “Flag on Orange” by Jasper Johns on its Facebook page. I immediately re-posted, as it turned out to be a perfect fit for the first CrealityCheck post: Jasper Johns is one of the most successful American living artists (his estimated wealth is $300 million, and he is one of 15 richest living artists).

John’s career started when he had begun painting images of flags in 1955 and alphabet subjects in 1956, then also moving into sculpture and lithographs. All of his pieces now generate significant sales, but those early paintings are the most sought after by the art collectors. His “Flag” sold for a record $28.6 million at Cristie’s in 2010, “Figure 4” fetched $18 million in 2007, “False Start” sold for $17 million in 2008 etc. This is not news to the arts world, but what I find interesting is, speaking in business terms, the product of this artist.


From a business perspective, Jasper Johns is a genius. He became a world famous artist and creator of the most iconic (and expensive) artworks by painting (and repainting, and repainting) rather trivial objects that surround us every day – numbers, letters, and the American flag. When discussing his early career he once stated: “In my early work, I tried to hide my personality, my psychological state, my emotions. This was partly due to my feelings about myself and partly due to my feelings about painting at the time.” What he did is worth learning from – he took his time, worked on his skills, protected his emotions while getting used to public exposure as an artist. He succeeded by playing safe at the beginning, and he won.


Many contemporary artists and creative professionals, especially early in their careers (and not only in visual arts), feel the pressure to constantly innovate, create pieces that expose their feelings and emotions to the audiences in the most raw forms and shapes etc. Sometimes it pays off, but often is also exhausting and unproductive.


1. If you are not ready to be publicly vulnerable through your work, you don’t have to be so to start – sometimes it takes time to become more confident in your practices – take that time, and work on projects that allow you to slowly reach comfort with what you are doing and how you are doing it. Simple, repetitive projects, as proven by Johns, do not ruin your credibility – they may, in fact, eventually bring you fortune.

2. Working on the same object/project over and over again gives time to build confidence and improve skills. It sometimes may become a business model (more on that in CrealityUniversity) that is easy to manage and gives the artist a chance to stand out in the crowd (anybody following http://www.humansofnewyork.com project?!).

3. Innovation is a buzz word that comes around every several decades for various reasons – to succeed as an artist, you don’t have to out-innovate Damian Hirst. Just finding something you can do really well sometimes is revolutionary enough.

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